Should I Stay or Should I Go? by Esther Nelson

On March 13, 2017, Carol Christ wrote on this “Feminism and Religion” blog:

“When I made the decision to leave Christianity rather than to work within it to transform it, I believed that rational judgments were primary. Now I am much more cognizant of the complex ways in which questions of identity, family history, ethnicity, class, community, and exclusion shape our decisions to leave or to stay. I think we need to talk more about this.”

I agree with Carol. This is an important subject to ponder as we think and write about the choices we make regarding the faith traditions we either inherited or belonged to at one point or another during our lives.

I just finished re-reading Joanna Brooks’ memoir, THE BOOK OF MORMON GIRL. Raised Mormon in an insular family in a “tract house on the edge of the orange groves” near San Diego, California, Joanna learned, and felt, early on that salvation meant “belonging,” tied to people who believed as her family and their Mormon ancestors did, “safe where no one would say your books of scripture are all made up.”

The stories that shaped Joanna early on in her life all “arrived at the same conclusions: the wayfarer restored, the sick healed, the lost keys found, a singular truth confirmed.” She wants to tell “orthodox Mormon stories,” yet “these are not the kinds of stories life has given me.”

Joanna struggles. “What do we do when the church of our childhoods no longer treasures our names?” She cannot throw away “the beautiful stories of angels at the bedside, [and] holy books buried in the American hillsides.” She eventually realizes, “I must make and tell my own version of the Mormon story.” Her memoir is an unorthodox Mormon story.

Joanna envisions a time when there will be “room at the table” for everybody—gays, lesbians, her Jewish husband, Idaho farm boys on their missions, all Mormon girls—her list goes on and on. She writes, “This is a church inhabited by people willing to give up their own children for being gay. This is also the church of Millie Watts and the church of my grandmothers. This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human failings. There is no unmixing the two.” She cannot turn her back on it all.

I grew up within Christianity. Unlike Joanna, though, I never felt a sense of belonging fellowshipping alongside the “brethren” within an obscure branch of Christendom on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a bustling metropolitan city, where we were admonished to “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (John 4:35). My parents were fundamentalist missionaries, eager to “win souls for the Lord” through evangelizing the “heathen.” My mother struggled as she tried to balance her job to “win souls” and her job to protect and nurture her children. She was torn, and like all of us, made choices and decisions based on what light she had at the time.

Today, I do not identify as Christian. But yet, the stories that shaped me—Biblical stories of an angry God wiping out “enemies,” prophets likening the straying of the Israelite people to “whoredom,” and Jesus speaking in cryptic parables so only “those who had ears to hear” could understand—have given me a prism through which to see the world. And even though I refuse to consciously look through that particular prism anymore, what was created at one time remains—even if only as a familiar keepsake.

I tried hard to make the stories and their interpretations by “great men of the faith” work for me. Doctrine derived from the stories such as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and Mary becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit failed to either inspire or comfort me. In fact, the orthodox way to understand the stories had nothing whatsoever to do with me—women dragging men down (Eve) and women passively accepting their fate (Mary).  For years, though, I attempted to chisel myself into a shape that fit the story, hoping to eventually belong. I thought the fault was within me. I now know better. As is the case with those people who are marginalized by a dominant voice, we realize — if we’re lucky — that stories spawned in patriarchal institutions like the Church, grow and develop within an experiential milieu that is not ours, but expected to be ours. I was expected to robe myself in the orthodoxy of my oppressors.

And yet, as I write this, the Biblical story of David and Goliath (I Samuel 17: 38-39) comes to mind:

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.

David was unable to fight [kill the enemy Goliath] in the conventional way. I loathe this imagery. Instead, David kills Goliath with a simple slingshot. David acted in a way that served his own needs, not by doing what King Saul expected. David resisted—went against the grain. The story of resistance becomes an orthodox story. However, were I to use this story as a model to behave in ways that challenge “the king,” I would be met with scorn and resistance. “You’re interpreting Scripture incorrectly.”

Women in patriarchal institutions and societies, such as ours, cannot accomplish what many of us have learned we must do — forging community through giving a place at the table to all, for starters — using the tools/armor of the patriarchal dominant culture. When we attempt to do so, we get accused of using the tools improperly as the patriarchy wrests them from our hands. We become alienated.

I eventually realized there was no room at the table for me. Once that light dawned, leaving the community was easy. Unlike Joanna, I never felt as though I really belonged anyway.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Belief, Christianity, Community, Feminism and Religion, LSD Church

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23 replies

  1. Brava! You’ve given a lot of thought to your decisions. Thanks for sharing your thinking with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “I eventually realized there was no room at the table for me. Once that light dawned, leaving the community was easy. Unlike Joanna, I never felt as though I really belonged anyway.” Thank you Esther. My experience was similar except that it was my experiences in Nature that finally eclipsed Christianity. Unfortunately though, in times of uncertainty I am still driven by a religion that for me is toxic.


    • Thank you, Sara, for your response. It’s breath taking how ingrained “orthodox” stories become in one’s life. Those patterns are difficult to re-shape. The new shapes we DO create to survive and foster a new community so easily revert back to the old. In spite of that, there came a time for me that I knew I had crossed a great divide and could not go back. Which doesn’t mean that the “old ways” don’t still have some effect on me–an effect I consider to be negative.


  3. I never felt as though I really belonged anyway.

    I think this is hard for those who felt as though they belonged or simply took for granted that they belonged to understand.

    Communities can provide a sense of belonging but they can also be exclusive and sometimes cruel in their exclusiveness.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The strong pull of nature was a huge influence on me in leaving evangelical Christianity, which included a marriage to a Christian theologian who was outraged by my preferring a communication and connection with trees over a relationship with “Christ”. Also my pursuit of voice was important as well – both my own experiments with the full range of the sounding voice as well as understanding more about the cultural silencing of the female voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wendalyn, for this comment. You remind me of Alice Walker’s book, THE COLOR PURPLE. Celie feels “stuck” with the image of God she has (old white man in the sky with blue eyes kind of look) until she meets Shug. Shug tells her that her first step away from that “old white man in the sky” was trees, then air, and then birds. Then other people. Shug came to understand that she was connected to everything that, not separate at all. “I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.” I think Shug’s relationship with trees was as sacred as some people’s relationship with “Christ”–trees and Christ both being symbols that speak to us on many levels.

      Liked by 2 people

      • thanks Esther for referencing The Colour Purple. I remember when i read it years ago that Shug’s comments about nature, and specifically about trees did have a huge impact on me. I had forgotten that! Great to be reminded.


  5. As a PK, I heard liturgical language and biblical stories before I could read. Though I left the church, the stories are in my bones. Because I am a story teller, I ended up telling some of those stories my way–or Maeve’s way. Really she told her own story and it happened to include some of those characters…

    Thanks for the post, Esther. I appreciated hearing your story!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I know what you mean about the stories being in our bones. I don’t think that’s a negative thing necessarily. Doesn’t seem like it was negative for you either. For me, though, it was the hard line the community took about how those stories needed to be understood and applied. There was no room for a whole lot of people in those stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting enough as a PK I had a loving adoration for my father and his faith. He taught me and brought my up with the God of LOVE hence my current last name.

    I did however witness that people experience the sacred differently and after a time in Buddhism I became Muslim.

    I never had a negative experience of not belonging because I am very much attached to the idea of no intermediary between a devotee and her Object of devotion, which was most coherently articulated in my studies of Islam.

    Thus my life’s work has been about both affirmation of everyone having a place at a table and learning to sit without a table as part of the intimate relationship with the Divine.

    I love your take on this as always, but thought I would share mine too.


    • Thanks, Ami. I’ve always been struck with how you’ve consistently affirmed and welcomed everyone to the table. Love the phrase, “learning to sit without a table as part of the intimate relationship with the Divine.” It’s a great image and seems to involve a “letting go” of sorts while going diligently about one’s work. ;-)


      • Enjoyed reading it Esther. I agree that our experiences of religion early on shape our experiences of “belonging.” My experience was different from yours and so my experience of Christianity is different. I didn’t “belong” with my adopted dysfunctional family and found “belonging” in Church. Later on, when I started to question basic beliefs, I suddenly didn’t “belong” quite as much. But having those initial experiences of family when I needed it shaped my theological understanding of the story of Christianity, i.e., loved Ched Myer’s Binding the Strong Man, which explains Mark through the stories of acceptance of the “other” and crossing boundaries. But should I stay or go? I find meaning in the stories and acceptance in very few “churches.”


  7. I’m struck by how many varieties of “Christianity” there are! And how silly it is for humans to claim exclusive possession of “Orthodoxy” with relation to Divine Mystery! I’m thankful for the wonderful Catholic feminist scholars like Ilia Delio and Beth Johnson. Such people, and a positive experience of Church as a child have given me roots there, even though I find the official system about 1700 years out of date.

    I believe we are in a time of great change and many find the way we used to “do things” no longer true for themselves. It is a time to launch a boat, not cower on the shore. And those who stay, and those who leave, all have my respect and support in the choice they make.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks, Barbara, for your balanced comment. We all come “at things” differently as you’ve noted. Am glad for the wide range of responses from people in (and outside of) faith communities. There’s room for all of us at the table!


  9. What a beautiful way to understand the text about David and the armor. I know I will be quoting that reading in your name.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I too was raised in the bosom of the Christian church–Methodist in my case. As a child I felt pretty comfortable in that world–right up until I had my first direct encounter with Jesus and discovered that none of my religious teachers believed me. Then I started feeling like I didn’t belong–a feeling that increased through the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam until I left the church at age 18. My subsequent spiritual searches have led me to earth-based spirituality. I struggled for years with the guilt and fear I felt at leaving the church. After years of work, I have reached a place where I can own the parts of Christianity that I believe in–mostly the teachings by Jesus about love–and blend them with my other beliefs about the sacredness of all life, inclusivity, etc. It is the most comfortable space I have occupied spiritually in a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks, Mary, for your comment. Have been reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh recently. He says that when he feels “a tremendous need for, shall I say the word–for religion–…I go outside at night to paint the stars.” Seems as though many people find healing and hope in nature.


  12. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. Love the variety of stories one hears from people on this subject. So much seems to hinge on one’s own story in conjunction with another (often official) story. And that story is never static which makes it all the more interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for this post, Esther. For years I tried to fit myself into patriarchal religion, but the first time I ever really felt I “belonged” was when I read Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance.”

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Such an exquisite sentence, Esther, ” I was expected to robe myself in the orthodoxy of my oppressors.”

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi, thanks for your thoughts . I quite agree. It’s interesting that women so regularly take leadership in churches and spiritual groups, from which they are later excluded, e.g. the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists.
    And lives of Jesus are favorites among women, e.g. Here’s the first female film director, Alice Guy, who did silent film of the Life of Jesus (maybe you know it)…


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